Every gamer has a game they hoped would get a follow-up, but that follow-up never came. For the founder of Djee Games, Marc Bourbonnais, that game was Jupiter Lander on the Commodore 64. "I remembered very clearly how I was hoping to see some form of sequel to Jupiter Lander where you would have a bit of diversity, like more landing surfaces, different gravity or a modified spaceship — anything to add variety." And to think, Bourbonnais would years later be looking to the same principles and wishes for a loose follow-up of sorts.
Djee Games is a relatively new studio located in Montreal, with an existing mobile title by the name of Flakes on the market. Now the one-man team is adding to its budding portfolio with Planet Lander, a free-to-play space game for iOS and Android that was influenced by one of Bourbonnais' favourite games. In speaking with GameZone, he had much to say on the game's early inspirations and his vision for what is an entry in a niche genre.
Planet Lander is a game where a methodical approach is the only way to play, where fuel conservation must be balanced against precise navigation and safe landings. Commenting on player behaviours encouraged through Jupiter Lander's similar design, he began: "I remember when you took a moment during the jingle at the start of the game and decided if you wanted to play it safe and aim for the accessible landing pad, or risk going through the crooked tunnel on the far right for more points."
Going from classic to current space landing games, mobile platforms appeared to possess agreeable soil through which the genre could adopt new form and function. But Bourbonnais made the observation that this same function became more of a scourge than an innovation. "The gameplay was overly reused a few years ago to showcase tilting features on smartphones with very generic games and tutorials," he said. "That pretty much killed the genre at that time." Now with decreased market saturation rendering this an even smaller niche, Planet Lander thus has less competition as it enters the mobile space and thereby less of a need to innovate strictly on the basis of principle.
While still a new face in the industry, Bourbonnais is thrilled to take part and gradually build his studio, with his background experience in outside industries to propel him forward. "I have 20 years of production experience in the digital effects industry, ranging from working as a digital artist to executive producer and business owner," he said. "My last business grew up to a staff of over one hundred very quickly so I know the pros and cons of expanding and running a large studio."
When asked what his findings were on the challenges of game development in comparison to his film and production background, one thing stood out: The former offers greater personal fulfillment. "VFX facilities are service-based and have little or no control on the creative aspects of the production," he elaborated. "You’re at the mercy of the clients for content, deadlines, level of quality and so on. Usually game studios, big or small, will develop their own projects. It’s much more fulfilling to nurture my own product and IP, as I get to decide where I put the effort and time."
As a longtime gaming enthusiast with 17 game systems, trends currently materializing bring an equal measure of fascination and excitement for Bourbonnais. What most grabs his attention is augmented reality. "It opens up a lot of fantastic possibilities and the ongoing results are already mind-blowing." There's no question that with the likes of Leap Motion and Oculus Rift, new technology is going to allow for even more immersive and visually stunning experiences, the kind that once characterized many arcade games when they were first consumed by the public. At the same time, Bourbonnais makes a good point that without accessible setups and sufficient quantities of quality content, "this enthusiasm will not last." It's something he's seen before. "I was at the front lines of new stereoscopic 3D movie production, and I have witnessed the rise and fall of general interest in that type of movie viewing because of some lackluster results and high ticket prices."
Even without the fancy gadgetry, gaming, as we know it today, is rife with well-made experiences on all platforms. But the divide in classification between what is considered "casual" and "hardcore" is detrimental to the industry, Bourbonnais suggests. "Going back to the Commodore 64 and 8-bit days, sometimes graphics and sounds were the key selling points, but gameplay was king, and genres were born. You did not call them 'casual' games back then." Taking into account the differences that marked successive console generations, he continued: "In the late '90s and early 2000s, however, only AAA titles from major studios were able to stand out. But now with the huge amount of mobile devices, gaming has a much wider range of possibilities. Finally, good, modest creations and original ideas can co-exist with big budget games. Hence the rise of indies."
With respect to his own journey, Bourbonnais plans to take things "one step at a time." Now that Planet Lander has released, considerations are being made to add new space modules and levels to traverse. It's possible that the game's presentation could also be looked at to the end of featuring vector graphics, which he has a personal fondness for. Beyond that, Djee Games isn't shy about pursuing development opportunities outside the mobile space. "Every platform is a new frontier with a new community!" he said in acknowledgment. "Gamers are gamers, wherever they are playing. I don’t see why you should ignore any platform whatsoever."